ICYMI – Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters’ – The New York Times

Good long read:

The idea has become a commonplace: that Saudi Arabia’s export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism. As the Islamic State projects its menacing calls for violence into the West, directing or inspiring terrorist attacks in country after country, an old debate over Saudi influence on Islam has taken on new relevance.

Is the world today a more divided, dangerous and violent place because of the cumulative effect of five decades of oil-financed proselytizing from the historical heart of the Muslim world? Or is Saudi Arabia, which has often supported Western-friendly autocrats over Islamists, merely a convenient scapegoat for extremism and terrorism with many complex causes — the United States’s own actions among them?

Those questions are deeply contentious, partly because of the contradictory impulses of the Saudi state.

In the realm of extremist Islam, the Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar. “They promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he said, providing ideological fodder for violent jihadists.

Yet at the same time, “they’re our partners in counterterrorism,” said Mr. McCants, one of three dozen academics, government officials and experts on Islam from multiple countries interviewed for this article.

Conflicting Goals

Saudi leaders seek good relations with the West and see jihadist violence as a menace that could endanger their rule, especially now that the Islamic State is staging attacks in the kingdom — 25 in the last eight months, by the government’s count. But they are also driven by their rivalry with Iran, and they depend for legitimacy on a clerical establishment dedicated to a reactionary set of beliefs. Those conflicting goals can play out in a bafflingly inconsistent manner.

Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said.

Photo

The Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea, one of hundreds of mosques around the world built using Saudi donations. CreditChoi Won-Suk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

The reach of the Saudis has been stunning, touching nearly every country with a Muslim population, from the Gothenburg Mosque in Sweden to the King Faisal Mosque in Chad, from the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles to the Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea. Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.

There is a broad consensus that the Saudi ideological juggernaut has disrupted local Islamic traditions in dozens of countries — the result of lavish spending on religious outreach for half a century, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. The result has been amplified by guest workers, many from South Asia, who spend years in Saudi Arabia and bring Saudi ways home with them. In many countries, Wahhabist preaching has encouraged a harshly judgmental religion, contributing to majority supportin some polls in Egypt, Pakistan and other countries for stoning for adultery and execution for anyone trying to leave Islam.

Limits of Influence

But exactly how Saudi influence plays out seems to depend greatly on local conditions. In parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, for instance, Saudi teachings have shifted the religious culture in a markedly conservative direction, most visibly in the decision of more women to cover their hair or of men to grow beards. Among Muslim immigrant communities in Europe, the Saudi influence seems to be just one factor driving radicalization, and not the most significant. In divided countries like Pakistan and Nigeria, the flood of Saudi money, and the ideology it promotes, have exacerbated divisions over religion that regularly prove lethal.

And for a small minority in many countries, the exclusionary Saudi version of Sunni Islam, with its denigration of Jews and Christians, as well as of Muslims of Shiite, Sufi and other traditions, may have made some people vulnerable to the lure of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other violent jihadist groups. “There’s only so much dehumanizing of the other that you can be exposed to — and exposed to as the word of God — without becoming susceptible to recruitment,” said David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington who tracks Saudi influence.

Exhibit A may be Saudi Arabia itself, which produced not only Osama bin Laden, but also 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001; sent more suicide bombers than any other country to Iraq after the 2003 invasion; and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State, 2,500, than any country other than Tunisia.

Mehmet Gormez, the senior Islamic cleric in Turkey, said that while he was meeting with Saudi clerics in Riyadh in January, the Saudi authorities had executed 47 people in a single day on terrorism charges, 45 of them Saudi citizens. “I said: ‘These people studied Islam for 10 or 15 years in your country. Is there a problem with the educational system?’ ” Mr. Gormez said in an interview. He argued that Wahhabi teaching was undermining the pluralism, tolerance and openness to science and learning that had long characterized Islam. “Sadly,” he said, the changes have taken place “in almost all of the Islamic world.”

In a huge embarrassment to the Saudi authorities, the Islamic State adopted official Saudi textbooks for its schools until the extremist group could publish its own books in 2015. Out of 12 works by Muslim scholars republished by the Islamic State, seven are by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of the Saudi school of Islam, said Jacob Olidort, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Adil al-Kalbani declared with regret in a television interview in January that the Islamic State leaders “draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, our own principles.”

Small details of Saudi practice can cause outsize trouble. For at least two decades, the kingdom has distributed an English translation of the Quran that in the first surah, or chapter, adds parenthetical references to Jews and Christians in addressing Allah: “those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).” Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the editor in chief of the new Study Quran, an annotated English version, said the additions were “a complete heresy, with no basis in Islamic tradition.”

Accordingly, many American officials who have worked to counter extremism and terrorism have formed a dark view of the Saudi effect — even if, given the sensitivity of the relationship, they are often loath to discuss it publicly. The United States’ reliance on Saudi counterterrorism cooperation in recent years — for instance, the Saudi tip that foiled a 2010 Qaeda plot to blow up two American cargo planes — has often taken precedence over concerns about radical influence. And generous Saudi funding for professorships and research centers at American universities, including the most elite institutions, has deterred criticism and discouraged research on the effects of Wahhabi proselytizing, according to Mr. McCants — who is working on a book about the Saudi impact on global Islam — and other scholars.

One American former official who has begun to speak out is Ms. Pandith, the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide. From 2009 to 2014, she visited Muslims in 80 countries and concluded that Saudi influence was pernicious and universal. “In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence,” she wrote in The New York Times last year. She said the United States should “disrupt the training of extremist imams,” “reject free Saudi textbooks and translations that are filled with hate,” and “prevent the Saudis from demolishing local Muslim religious and cultural sites that are evidence of the diversity of Islam.”

Source: Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters’ – The New York Times

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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